Financial help available for students dealing with emergencies

Life can send someone a curve at any time. That includes students who may be taxed trying to make ends meet. When something happens that puts them in an unexpected bind, Iowa State can lend a financial helping hand with emergency scholarships to keep them progressing toward a degree.

"They are for one-time things a student could not have foreseen happening," said director of student financial aid Roberta Johnson. "It can get them through that particular emergency or crisis and get them back on track, at least financially."

Every emergency is different

Whether the problem is overdue rent, a death in the family or needed car repairs to make the commute to Ames, each case is handled individually. There are no formal criteria for an emergency scholarship, but Johnson said she needs documentation to verify need before disbursing funds. She estimates emergency funds are used 20 to 30 instances each year. It comes from a variety of funds.

"We do have some residual dollars in scholarship accounts," Johnson said. "We might have a student walk in with an emergency, and they otherwise meet the criteria for a scholarship, but they didn't get it. Maybe we can offer them money from that scholarship because we have some residual funds left."

College student services offices or the dean of students office often are the primary contact for students in need of financial assistance. Student services staff then work with Johnson's staff to try to resolve the issue.

"Our colleges have done an excellent job of making the faculty and staff aware that if they see a student in distress, they refer them to student services or to our office," Johnson said. "Student services staff really are our eyes and ears on the ground."

Often the need is just a few hundred dollars, but it can make a big impact.

More aid

Iowa State has three main sources of financial aid available to students: scholarships, completion grants and emergency scholarships. Scholarships are earned through academic merit and other criteria.

Iowa State offers three types of completion grants with a broad spectrum of criteria, but Johnson said the goal is the same.

"Those dollars assist students to continue their education, and without it they would be very challenged," she said. "They have already utilized all other resources, and we don't have any other resources for them."

The University Innovation Alliance is an initiative among 11 public universities that share best practices for graduating more students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. This academic year is No. 3 in an initial three-year window in which ISU received $168,000 in seed money. The main criteria to receive this completion grant are for a student to be within two semesters of graduation and in good academic standing.

"Being part of the alliance means we are  required to find some matching funds, so it has led to the idea of completion grants within the ISU Foundation," Johnson said. "We have some donors who are giving dollars for completion grants at Iowa State."

The third type of completion grant is funded through a gift from the athletics department, which in 2018 pledged $1 million over five years. They were named Cyclone Success Grants.

"They [athletics] told us to craft them the way we wanted to best use them," Johnson said. "We are able to identify strong students who need some assistance to complete the current academic year they are in."

Being able to offer grants to a variety of students is important because some criteria eliminate certain populations on campus.

"Some completion grants are limited to only those who complete the FAFSA form, and the only students who can complete the form are U.S. citizens or eligible noncitizens," Johnson said. "We have international students who experience a crisis as well."

Working together

Johnson said in recent years, the office of student financial aid has partnered more often with colleges  to provide money to students in emergency situations. A need may be more than one office can provide, but working together pools resources.

"We had a young lady whose mother died, and she is trying to navigate how to pay for the funeral while also paying for school," Johnson said. "It always amazes me how our students have the tenacity in a very difficult situation to stay in school and navigate that."

More donors have contributed to the completion grant program as word has spread. Donors often sympathize with students, recalling having to take time away during their college years to earn money to be able to return and complete their degree, Johnson said.

"We appreciate whatever support we receive to help our students remain in school and graduate," she said. "That is the ultimate goal, to have them at Iowa State."